Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Amice is Your Friend

Literally, that is, since the word comes from amicus.

But there's more to it than that. Its existence, even as that existence becomes endangered, is a reminder of something worthwhile: that your alb is supposed to cover your street clothes, not show them off. Collars included.

In one of his reader Q&As today, Fr. Zuhlsdorf is asked about laypeople serving at the altar, and whether they should have their ties and turtlenecks and what-all sticking up from their cassocks. The obvious answer is no, and neither should the clergy. Both Fr. Z. and his reader refer to the appropriate section of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Case closed, Roman-style.

But for those of us who do not answer to the authority of the GIRM, the question may require an answer from first principles. So, briefly:
  • Vestments, by their nature, are designed to tell a story -- not about the wearer's individuality, but about his or her place in the assembly. Far from being an opportunity for personal display, they are a guide to the task that each person will fulfill in the service. These are all baptized; this one is ordained, either to the priesthood or the diaconate; that one will celebrate Holy Communion. Ah, say the faithful, reading the day's living bulletin; we understand.
  • By the same logic, various bits of personal haberdashery -- notably wristwatches and bracelets -- are customarily removed when leading worship. The last thing anybody wants is to solemnly elevate a chalice, and yet have the faithful in the pews distracted by one's butt-ugly G-Shock.
  • The traditional base garment for the minister of Holy Communion is the alb, a simple white robe. To fulfill its purpose of covering up the secular clothing, the alb is designed with close-fitting sleeves and a hem that falls just above the tops of the shoes. The neck (along with shirt collars and other neckwear) is covered by the amice, which while not part of the alb as such was for many generations inseparable from it in use. The net effect is that the celebrant's head, hands and feet are revealed, and the rest is covered up by pure baptismal whiteness. Other vestments are added to this foundation, which is the immersion of the individual into the fundamental reality of the Church, the Resurrection of Christ.
Several recent developments have changed the way that the alb is used:
  • The alb has spread beyond the celebrant, and is now frequently used by other ministers as well. This means that where, once, the alb was nearly always worn under a chasuble, now it is often worn without any other vestment.
  • The cassock-alb, introduced (we believe) by C.M. Almy and now available from every supplier on earth, has virtually eliminated the use of the amice.
Neither of these is objectionable by itself. Although cassocks and surplices offer a much neater appearance on most people than albs, because they don't bunch up as much, they are not magical. One plain white robe delivers the message as well as another. And the cassock-alb is eminently practical.

However, as albs have come to be used more widely, marketing forces have led to a greater diversity of styles than existed in the past. Some of these styles defeat the basic purpose of an alb. Excessively wide sleeves simulate a surplice, and cowl necks proudly reveal whatever may be underneath -- typically, a clerical collar and a flash of one's shirt. Better that than chest hair, we suppose -- but still.

It makes you want to stand up and say, "Dude, just buy an amice."

We hate to pick on an easy target, but this brings us to (D&FMS of the) PECUSA PB Katherine Jefferts Schori. Schori's vestment choices are so predictably wretched that they seem to deliberately mock the customary good taste of her peers. And in fact, we have come to believe that she is, deliberately and savagely, mocking much of the rest of the Anglican clergy and especially its episcopate, with many of whom she is upon notoriously poor terms.

Consider the picture to your right.

Cowl neck? Check. Flapping sleeves? Ditto. And chasuble? Could be worse, but it ain't pretty. Under normal circumstances, we would consider this an example of extremely bad judgment. Under normal circumstances.

But as most readers know, this photo was snapped in the midst of what the Anglican world calls "Mitregate." Bishop Schori, on a recent visit to Britain, was asked by Lambeth Palace to forgo the use of her mitre in procession when she celebrated the Eucharist. The official basis of the request was that CofE canon law does not recognize the existence of female bishops; the underlying reality is that this was clearly read, and surely meant, as a snub to Schori.

Her revenge? According to our theory, it was to proceed wearing attire that clearly revealed her ordination both to the priesthood (note the collar) and to the episcopate (note the flash of purple shirt). It was just the sort of telling of one's personal story that the tradition discourages and vestments, traditionally designed and worn, discourage. But there are times when one's personal story is a n important and timely witness to the Gospel. Perhaps this was one of them.

The moral of the story is twofold. First, buy an amice. By which we really mean, let us all wear our vestments as they were meant to be worn, not merely for the sake of decency and order, but for the sake of the Gospel we are called to proclaim. And second, sometimes decency order may get in the way of the proclamation. So then you skip the amice.


Pastor Joelle said...

Nobody teaches this in seminary. I did know I had a alb that was way too short and have since remedied that. But I didn't know my collar wasn't supposed to show. They need to teach this stuff in seminary.

Father Anonymous said...

So true, which is one of the reasons I posted it. You never know when a seminarian will stumble over the site.

During my Lutheran year (and for years afterward), I spent a LOT of time with Gordon Lathrop. He was a genius at explaining the symbolism to us, right down to the advice about wristwatches. But poor Gordon (whom I admire tremendously) just couldn't bring himself to come out and tell us what to do and not do. Even when we needed it desperately.

Father Anonymous said...

Plus, now that I think about it, he liked the cowl neck. Which just proves that reasonable people can disagree.

Gillian said...

I agree w/ the anti-cowl-neck view if you're in mufti--i.e. for lay folks and clergy who've had to suddenly vest when they weren't expecting it. (But this is why we have spare clericals in our offices, right?). But if I'm in a black clergy shirt and collar, and it's visible at the neck of my monastic-style alb, to me that's no more "individual" or personal or distracting than the stole I'm wearing. Both "say" the same thing. If I'm in a clergy shirt in a color other than black, then maybe yes, it should be covered.

I don't remember Aidan Kavanaugh saying anything about loose necks or sleeves, and he doesn't generally miss an opportunity for liturgical snark . . . (The Elements of Rite)

LiturgyGeek said...

I may call myself a liturgy geek, but I am but a dilettante in your presence. Why again do you wear a collar when you are wearing an alb?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip about the amice. Now what can you recommend to all those pastors who wear gray trousers and/or brown loafers?

Father Anonymous said...

G: First off, I genuflect at the altar of Kavanagh. But I'm not sure that his silence on a very small point should be read as an endorsement. My copy of Elements is many thousand miles away, but as I recall he usually winds up explaining why the Romish rubrics are right.

My point here is that the black (one hopes!) shirt and collar are street clothes, as much as a necktie or scarf. One covers them up upon entering into the (pardon this wretched and misleading expression) sacred space, just as one would a necktie.

But, lest all this get too legalistic, there is also the cassock to consider. Should a person wearing a clerical collar remove it when leading some service that calls for a cassock? That seems logical, but it isn't the custom so far as I know. For that matter, the cassock itself, customarily understood as clothing-not-vestment, shows plenifully under the surplice. So there is at least one case in which almighty Tradition seems to smile upon a flash of clerical streetwear. The cowl-neck and flappy sleeves could be seen as just an extension of this principle.

(Side question: is "monastic-style alb" just a marketing phrase, or is there any actual tradition of monks wearing historically anomalous albs in a Eucharistic celebration? I suppose it might be something about the cowl of a habit sticking up from under a chasuble. I have no idea, and I'm very curious.)

Anyway, with certain strategic exceptions noted, I think it is wisest to vote with the GIRM and longstanding tradition here, and cover the neck.

LG asks the sorta-opposite question. If we're covering up our necks anyway, why wear a collar? The answer, basically, is: coffee hour.

In other words, both before and after the celebration of the Eucharist, it is likely that you will want to be seen wearing your usual dress-up clothes. For some people, that means a collar; for others, of course, it doesn't. Either way, these are the clothes that get covered up by the alb and amice.

Now, if we want to kick this discussion of inessentials up a notch, shall we talk about pectoral crosses worn by people without jurisdiction? Heh, heh, heh ....

liturgy said...

I think some things are beginning to be muddled here. In some orders, particularly monastic ones like Cistercians, as an example, the "cowl" is a loose-fitting garment, much like the alb the Presiding bishop is wearing in your photo, with wide sleeves and a hood. This is worn at the office, and a priest presiding in such a community would not have another alb than this. That Gillian, the Presiding Bishop, and many, many others now wear such an alb and consciously see it as "monastic-style" is worth a doctoral thesis - not merely a post comment :-)



Gillian said...

Which leads to another conversation--collar/clericals as "street clothes." Nowadays, how often do we each wear them, and when? 7 days a week? 6? 5? Only when we're in the church office or on a pastoral visit or anticipate vesting? Only when we're doing something diaconal/priestly? Only when we want to "advertise" the Church's presence in the world in a specific way? How fast are we to take the collar tab out of the shirt as we head off to non-church things? And so to what extent have clericals perhaps entered some sort of middle ground--not just for sacred space, but not just worn all the time as a t-shirt or oxford button-down might be, either?

I'm still sorting out my own personal practice of collar-wearing, which I'm sure will also change based on what parish I'm serving. Right now the biggest factor is my limited number of clerical shirts and the hassle of dealing w/ a shared laundry room w/ way too few washer/dryers for the number of tenants . . . .

Anonymous said...

I'd be happy if we could only get our West Coast and Midwestern clerics to stop wearing gray trouser and brown loafers at the Divine Office!

San Francisco

Anonymous said...

Well, that brings up a good question. From where does one purchase an amice and a proper alb? I don't see them in the Almy catalog.

audrey said...

I was trained this way: when you are at work, wear your collar. When you are not, do not.
That has served me very well. (It also means that I wear the collar a lot.)

Father Anonymous said...

Almy does sell them, item 31300W. But I don't think they sell many of them, so they are rarely featured.

You can also pick them up at various Romish supply houses, including Autom and Granda (

That said, and despite this entire thread, I want to be clear and say that I personally prefer the cassock-alb. Covers my neck almost as well, and much easier to use. Not to mention kinder in hot weather.

Unknown said...

Amices are not just for appearance in real time. Their usefulness is also preventive and cumulative. One of their chief purposes is to protect fine silk vestments from perspiration stains. Really. They swaddle the sweaty neck.

I've made amices. Very easy. Handkerchief linen, wide cotton tape for the ties.

Stephan Clark said...

Am interested in your comments in this post. But think your comments about the Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts-Schori are deeply dismissive.
Whether or not you think women may be Bishops she was the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA.
How deeply insulting was this occasion!
My understanding is that her mitre was carried in procession before her.
This problem is not solved by '
buying an amice'

Stephan Clark said...

Am not quite sure why (or how) the above post was reposted this a.m....since I think I wrote it in 2010
Still stand by the comment.

Frankly I think amices are rather like detachable Victorian collars . see here for example
I do agree that essentially they (like the collar) are a convenient way of keeping other vestments's easier to wash an amice, or to launder a collar than to try to clean a chasuble or a shirt.
BUT in the last 150 years we have seen a change in materials, and an improvement in the facility to launder and clean vestments and shirts!
We have ( as is our wont ) given a curious spiritual connexion to a practical vestment....I don't deprecate this I will put on the helmet of salvation, a good allusion and reminder of our call to holiness.
Let's not be obsessed by amices. But I do muse about elsewhere (

Father Anonymous said...

Dear Stephan,

As you can tell, the blog hasn't been getting a lot of attention the past couple of years. But returning to it recently, after a very long layoff, I just noticed your eight-year-old comment (!) and hit the publish button.

I will say, a lot of what I was writing before about 2015 should be taken tongue in cheek. I was rarely entirely in earnest. In a sense, that has been part of my long layoff: I'm afraid that the horrors of the Trump Administration have driven me so far around the bend that I have a hard time even making fun of them, or of much of the world's other silliness.